Autres Temps ..., by Edith Wharton

VI

The Barkleys’ visitors had dispersed, and Mrs. Lidcote, completely restored by her two days’ rest, found herself, on the following Monday alone with her children and Miss Suffern.

There was a note of jubilation in the air, for the party had “gone off” so extraordinarily well, and so completely, as it appeared, to the satisfaction of Mrs. Lorin Boulger, that Wilbour’s early appointment to Rome was almost to be counted on. So certain did this seem that the prospect of a prompt reunion mitigated the distress with which Leila learned of her mother’s decision to return almost immediately to Italy. No one understood this decision; it seemed to Leila absolutely unintelligible that Mrs. Lidcote should not stay on with them till their own fate was fixed, and Wilbour echoed her astonishment.

“Why shouldn’t you, as Leila says, wait here till we can all pack up and go together?”

Mrs. Lidcote smiled her gratitude with her refusal. “After all, it’s not yet sure that you’ll be packing up.”

“Oh, you ought to have seen Wilbour with Mrs. Boulger,” Leila triumphed.

“No, you ought to have seen Leila with her,” Leila’s husband exulted.

Miss Suffern enthusiastically appended: “I do think inviting Harriet Fresbie was a stroke of genius!”

“Oh, we’ll be with you soon,” Leila laughed. “So soon that it’s really foolish to separate.”

But Mrs. Lidcote held out with the quiet firmness which her daughter knew it was useless to oppose. After her long months in India, it was really imperative, she declared, that she should get back to Florence and see what was happening to her little place there; and she had been so comfortable on the Utopia that she had a fancy to return by the same ship. There was nothing for it, therefore, but to acquiesce in her decision and keep her with them till the afternoon before the day of the Utopia’s sailing. This arrangement fitted in with certain projects which, during her two days’ seclusion, Mrs. Lidcote had silently matured. It had become to her of the first importance to get away as soon as she could, and the little place in Florence, which held her past in every fold of its curtains and between every page of its books, seemed now to her the one spot where that past would be endurable to look upon.

She was not unhappy during the intervening days. The sight of Leila’s well-being, the sense of Leila’s tenderness, were, after all, what she had come for; and of these she had had full measure. Leila had never been happier or more tender; and the contemplation of her bliss, and the enjoyment of her affection, were an absorbing occupation for her mother. But they were also a sharp strain on certain overtightened chords, and Mrs. Lidcote, when at last she found herself alone in the New York hotel to which she had returned the night before embarking, had the feeling that she had just escaped with her life from the clutch of a giant hand.

She had refused to let her daughter come to town with her; she had even rejected Susy Suffern’s company. She wanted no viaticum but that of her own thoughts; and she let these come to her without shrinking from them as she sat in the same high-hung sitting-room in which, just a week before, she and Franklin Ide had had their memorable talk.

She had promised her friend to let him hear from her, but she had not kept her promise. She knew that he had probably come back from Chicago, and that if he learned of her sudden decision to return to Italy it would be impossible for her not to see him before sailing; and as she wished above all things not to see him she had kept silent, intending to send him a letter from the steamer.

There was no reason why she should wait till then to write it. The actual moment was more favorable, and the task, though not agreeable, would at least bridge over an hour of her lonely evening. She went up to the writing-table, drew out a sheet of paper and began to write his name. And as she did so, the door opened and he came in.

The words she met him with were the last she could have imagined herself saying when they had parted. “How in the world did you know that I was here?”

He caught her meaning in a flash. “You didn’t want me to, then?” He stood looking at her. “I suppose I ought to have taken your silence as meaning that. But I happened to meet Mrs. Wynn, who is stopping here, and she asked me to dine with her and Charlotte, and Charlotte’s young man. They told me they’d seen you arriving this afternoon, and I couldn’t help coming up.”

There was a pause between them, which Mrs. Lidcote at last surprisingly broke with the exclamation: “Ah, she did recognize me, then!”

“Recognize you?” He stared. “Why — ”

“Oh, I saw she did, though she never moved an eyelid. I saw it by Charlotte’s blush. The child has the prettiest blush. I saw that her mother wouldn’t let her speak to me.”

Ide put down his hat with an impatient laugh. “Hasn’t Leila cured you of your delusions?”

She looked at him intently. “Then you don’t think Margaret Wynn meant to cut me?”

“I think your ideas are absurd.”

She paused for a perceptible moment without taking this up; then she said, at a tangent: “I’m sailing tomorrow early. I meant to write to you — there’s the letter I’d begun.”

Ide followed her gesture, and then turned his eyes back to her face. “You didn’t mean to see me, then, or even to let me know that you were going till you’d left?”

“I felt it would be easier to explain to you in a letter — ”

“What in God’s name is there to explain?” She made no reply, and he pressed on: “It can’t be that you’re worried about Leila, for Charlotte Wynn told me she’d been there last week, and there was a big party arriving when she left: Fresbies and Gileses, and Mrs. Lorin Boulger — all the board of examiners! If Leila has passed that, she’s got her degree.”

Mrs. Lidcote had dropped down into a corner of the sofa where she had sat during their talk of the week before. “I was stupid,” she began abruptly. “I ought to have gone to Ridgefield with Susy. I didn’t see till afterward that I was expected to.”

“You were expected to?”

“Yes. Oh, it wasn’t Leila’s fault. She suffered — poor darling; she was distracted. But she’d asked her party before she knew I was arriving.”

“Oh, as to that — ” Ide drew a deep breath of relief. “I can understand that it must have been a disappointment not to have you to herself just at first. But, after all, you were among old friends or their children: the Gileses and Fresbies — and little Charlotte Wynn.” He paused a moment before the last name, and scrutinized her hesitatingly. “Even if they came at the wrong time, you must have been glad to see them all at Leila’s.”

She gave him back his look with a faint smile. “I didn’t see them.”

“You didn’t see them?”

“No. That is, excepting little Charlotte Wynn. That child is exquisite. We had a talk before luncheon the day I arrived. But when her mother found out that I was staying in the house she telephoned her to leave immediately, and so I didn’t see her again.”

The colour rushed to Ide’s sallow face. “I don’t know where you get such ideas!”

She pursued, as if she had not heard him: “Oh, and I saw Mary Giles for a minute too. Susy Suffern brought her up to my room the last evening, after dinner, when all the others were at bridge. She meant it kindly — but it wasn’t much use.”

“But what were you doing in your room in the evening after dinner?”

“Why, you see, when I found out my mistake in coming, — how embarrassing it was for Leila, I mean — I simply told her I was very tired, and preferred to stay upstairs till the party was over.”

Ide, with a groan, struck his hand against the arm of his chair. “I wonder how much of all this you simply imagined!”

“I didn’t imagine the fact of Harriet Fresbie’s not even asking if she might see me when she knew I was in the house. Nor of Mary Giles’s getting Susy, at the eleventh hour, to smuggle her up to my room when the others wouldn’t know where she’d gone; nor poor Leila’s ghastly fear lest Mrs. Lorin Boulger, for whom the party was given, should guess I was in the house, and prevent her husband’s giving Wilbour the second secretaryship because she’d been obliged to spend a night under the same roof with his mother-in-law!”

Ide continued to drum on his chair-arm with exasperated fingers. “You don’t know that any of the acts you describe are due to the causes you suppose.”

Mrs. Lidcote paused before replying, as if honestly trying to measure the weight of this argument. Then she said in a low tone: “I know that Leila was in an agony lest I should come down to dinner the first night. And it was for me she was afraid, not for herself. Leila is never afraid for herself.”

“But the conclusions you draw are simply preposterous. There are narrow-minded women everywhere, but the women who were at Leila’s knew perfectly well that their going there would give her a sort of social sanction, and if they were willing that she should have it, why on earth should they want to withhold it from you?”

“That’s what I told myself a week ago, in this very room, after my first talk with Susy Suffern.” She lifted a misty smile to his anxious eyes. “That’s why I listened to what you said to me the same evening, and why your arguments half convinced me, and made me think that what had been possible for Leila might not be impossible for me. If the new dispensation had come, why not for me as well as for the others? I can’t tell you the flight my imagination took!”

Franklin Ide rose from his seat and crossed the room to a chair near her sofa-corner. “All I cared about was that it seemed — for the moment — to be carrying you toward me,” he said.

“I cared about that, too. That’s why I meant to go away without seeing you.” They gave each other grave look for look. “Because, you see, I was mistaken,” she went on. “We were both mistaken. You say it’s preposterous that the women who didn’t object to accepting Leila’s hospitality should have objected to meeting me under her roof. And so it is; but I begin to understand why. It’s simply that society is much too busy to revise its own judgments. Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.”

Ide sat motionless while she spoke. As she ended, he stood up with a short laugh and walked across the room to the window. Outside, the immense black prospect of New York, strung with its myriad lines of light, stretched away into the smoky edges of the night. He showed it to her with a gesture.

“What do you suppose such words as you’ve been using — ‘society,’ ‘tradition,’ and the rest — mean to all the life out there?”

She came and stood by him in the window. “Less than nothing, of course. But you and I are not out there. We’re shut up in a little tight round of habit and association, just as we’re shut up in this room. Remember, I thought I’d got out of it once; but what really happened was that the other people went out, and left me in the same little room. The only difference was that I was there alone. Oh, I’ve made it habitable now, I’m used to it; but I’ve lost any illusions I may have had as to an angel’s opening the door.”

Ide again laughed impatiently. “Well, if the door won’t open, why not let another prisoner in? At least it would be less of a solitude — ”

She turned from the dark window back into the vividly lighted room.

“It would be more of a prison. You forget that I know all about that. We’re all imprisoned, of course — all of us middling people, who don’t carry our freedom in our brains. But we’ve accommodated ourselves to our different cells, and if we’re moved suddenly into new ones we’re likely to find a stone wall where we thought there was thin air, and to knock ourselves senseless against it. I saw a man do that once.”

Ide, leaning with folded arms against the windowframe, watched her in silence as she moved restlessly about the room, gathering together some scattered books and tossing a handful of torn letters into the paperbasket. When she ceased, he rejoined: “All you say is based on preconceived theories. Why didn’t you put them to the test by coming down to meet your old friends? Don’t you see the inference they would naturally draw from your hiding yourself when they arrived? It looked as though you were afraid of them — or as though you hadn’t forgiven them. Either way, you put them in the wrong instead of waiting to let them put you in the right. If Leila had buried herself in a desert do you suppose society would have gone to fetch her out? You say you were afraid for Leila and that she was afraid for you. Don’t you see what all these complications of feeling mean? Simply that you were too nervous at the moment to let things happen naturally, just as you’re too nervous now to judge them rationally.” He paused and turned his eyes to her face. “Don’t try to just yet. Give yourself a little more time. Give me a little more time. I’ve always known it would take time.”

He moved nearer, and she let him have her hand.

With the grave kindness of his face so close above her she felt like a child roused out of frightened dreams and finding a light in the room.

“Perhaps you’re right — ” she heard herself begin; then something within her clutched her back, and her hand fell away from him.

“I know I’m right: trust me,” he urged. “We’ll talk of this in Florence soon.”

She stood before him, feeling with despair his kindness, his patience and his unreality. Everything he said seemed like a painted gauze let down between herself and the real facts of life; and a sudden desire seized her to tear the gauze into shreds.

She drew back and looked at him with a smile of superficial reassurance. “You are right — about not talking any longer now. I’m nervous and tired, and it would do no good. I brood over things too much. As you say, I must try not to shrink from people.” She turned away and glanced at the clock. “Why, it’s only ten! If I send you off I shall begin to brood again; and if you stay we shall go on talking about the same thing. Why shouldn’t we go down and see Margaret Wynn for half an hour?”

She spoke lightly and rapidly, her brilliant eyes on his face. As she watched him, she saw it change, as if her smile had thrown a too vivid light upon it.

“Oh, no — not to-night!” he exclaimed.

“Not to-night? Why, what other night have I, when I’m off at dawn? Besides, I want to show you at once that I mean to be more sensible — that I’m not going to be afraid of people any more. And I should really like another glimpse of little Charlotte.” He stood before her, his hand in his beard, with the gesture he had in moments of perplexity. “Come!” she ordered him gaily, turning to the door.

He followed her and laid his hand on her arm. “Don’t you think — hadn’t you better let me go first and see? They told me they’d had a tiring day at the dressmaker’s I daresay they have gone to bed.”

“But you said they’d a young man of Charlotte’s dining with them. Surely he wouldn’t have left by ten? At any rate, I’ll go down with you and see. It takes so long if one “ends a servant first” She put him gently aside, and then paused as a new thought struck her. “Or wait; my maid’s in the next room. I’ll tell her to go and ask if Margaret will receive me. Yes, that’s much the best way.”

She turned back and went toward the door that led to her bedroom; but before she could open it she felt Ide’s quick touch again.

“I believe — I remember now — Charlotte’s young man was suggesting that they should all go out — to a musichall or something of the sort. I’m sure — I’m positively sure that you won’t find them.”

Her hand dropped from the door, his dropped from her arm, and as they drew back and faced each other she saw the blood rise slowly through his sallow skin, redden his neck and ears, encroach upon the edges of his beard, and settle in dull patches under his kind troubled eyes. She had seen the same blush on another face, and the same impulse of compassion she had then felt made her turn her gaze away again.

A knock on the door broke the silence, and a porter put his head’ into the room.

“It’s only just to know how many pieces there’ll be to go down to the steamer in the morning.”

With the words she felt that the veil of painted gauze was torn in tatters, and that she was moving again among the grim edges of reality.

“Oh, dear,” she exclaimed, “I never can remember! Wait a minute; I shall have to ask my maid.”

She opened her bedroom door and called out: “Annette!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30